How I Almost Died in the Flood of the Arno

Do I remember it?  We were in it!

It was before the Arno burst its banks and drowned Florence, but it had been raining hard and continuously for many days.  Having "done" Firenze, we were driving south at 6:00 A.M., out of Sienna, headed for Rome to rendezvous with our friend.  The autostrada was not completed, so we were on the local road, cutting through the hillsides.  The road went down the hillside, made a hairpin bend, and cut up the other side of the ridge.  I slowed for the curve but didn't realize it was under several inches of water.  I had never heard of dynamic hydroplaning.

The car, a Fiat 1500 four-door sedan, became unresponsive, as if on glare ice.   As we sailed off the road, with the tops of the trees in the headlights, I made the canonical exclamation (no it wasn't "Oh, fiddlesticks!").  It sailed silently toward a meadow, and we landed nose first on the downslope, bounced gracefully into the air, and turned over to land flat on the roof.   We bounced again and rolled side over side and came to a stop with the car on its wheels.  Ann was crying, and I tried to open my door to get around to her side to get her out, and I discovered I couldn't move my left arm without severe pain.  I wasn't able to open the door with my right hand.  Both rear doors had sprung open, and our belongings, including a couple of rolls of unspooling toilet paper, were strewn down the hillside.  Very slowly and very carefully, I maneuvered into the back seat and out the open door.  I wasn't able to open her door, so I squatted down next to it and made reassuring noises.

It was still dim, false dawn, and I could see moving lights up on the road and hear voices.  "Aiuto!" I shouted – "Help!" – and got "Veniamo!" – "We're coming!" – in return.  It took them several minutes to get to us, and they got the door open and Ann out.  She was in pain but mobile, had taken a hit on the cheek.  I determined that I had a fractured left clavicle and a fractured lower left rib.  They laid us on the grass, and I heard from those on the road that an ambulance had been called.  Fifteen minutes later, they said the ambulance couldn't come, and they had called the fire department.  When they arrived, they came down with two stretchers, carried us back up the hill, and slid us into the back of a modified Fiat station wagon, fire-engine red, tiny, with two stacked stretcher racks behind the front seats.  I was on the bottom with my nose touching the canvas above.

It was interesting listening to the Florentine dialect, with the aspirated hard "c."  When Manzoni revised his famous book I Promessi Sposi to conform to the language of Florence, this was probably not what he was listening to.  "Una Hoha-Hola, prego" gets you a Coke.

They took us to the hospital, which I can today identify as Santa Maria della Scala, now a museum but in 1966 still a hospital – a hospital with gorgeous frescoes on the walls and ceilings.  Not in the Emergency Admitting, of course, possibly the narthex, where we were separated to men's and women's sides and then sent to segregated wards.  The intern admitting me asked me what was wrong, and I told him.  "Ah!  Ortopedico!"  He seemed relieved at not having to actually examine me.

The orthopedic ward for men was huge, with a vaulted decorated ceiling, a center double-row of cots head to head, and a single line of cots along the walls.  I would estimate maybe 80 beds, probably more, much bigger than the 30-bed wards of my internship in Baltimore.  Along the back wall was a constructed alcove behind partitions from which, after 9:00 A.M., cries of pain began to issue.

"What's that?" I asked the nurse. The dental clinic. 

The nurse asked me if I was in pain, then explained that until the intern arrived at 9:00, she was unable to give me narcotics.  She then came back with a syringe in her hand, squirting the air out.  "What's that?"  "Camfora."  "Oh, no thanks," I said.  Camphor is a counter-irritant used to distract you from your pain by creating a bigger pain in a different place.

While I was waiting for the doctor to come to work, I examined myself, determined that the pulses in my left arm were OK and the broken rib was probably the twelfth, and therefore my spleen was at risk.  I examined my abdomen for signs of fluid, found none, and told myself it didn't feel doughy.  No, definitely not doughy.

The intern arrived – it was a university hospital – and said that the primario, the chief of service, would be in later, but meanwhile we would get x-rays.  Labs were not ordered.  He gave me a shot of painkiller.  The x-ray tech arrived with a mobile x-ray unit that seemed to have survived from the WWII battlefield, looking rather like a metal praying mantis with a cardboard cone covering its mouth parts.  He placed one 8"x10" cassette behind my left shoulder, exposed it, and then another the same size behind my back, also crosswise, not quite low enough to show the twelfth rib.  (Our cassettes for ribs were 14"x17".)

The intern came back and told me I had a fractured clavicle.  Thank you.  And that my rib was not fractured.  Ah, then why does it click when I breathe? 

I asked if I could speak to my wife.  When she arrived, under her own power, I asked her to try to call the Livorno U.S. Army hospital and see if we could be picked up.

The primario, craggy and elegantly coiffed, arrived in starched lab coat and insisted on speaking English – rather well, too.  He explained that he had devised his own treatment for clavicle fracture, which was a figure-eight brace made out of rubber surgical tubing.  This did stabilize the shoulder, but it was knotted in the back, so the position of least discomfort, supine, was denied me.  (Our brace was made of flat strapping cloth, pinned in front.)  It took me five minutes of infinitely painstaking movement to get out of bed and in again.

The Army ambulance arrived in the afternoon, and things got better.  That little Fiat sedan saved our lives.  The roof crumpled a bit but did not collapse.  It didn't catch fire.  No safety belts, of course.

My hospital commander in Vicenza, the next month, gave me a written reprimand for having had that accident.  I deserved it.


Many artistic works in Firenze were restored by the Mud Angels (Gli Angeli del Fango), who volunteered from many countries to do the work.  Many non-experts did dirty work like cleaning up the streets and basements.

The Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari, from 1546, is justifiably not as well known as da Vinci's but equally justifiably revered for its own merits.  The 21'x8' oil painting on five poplar panels was done at the request of the Murate Convent of Benedictine nuns, whose rules forbade the entrance of male artists to fresco the walls.  But the wooden panels could be easily transported into the convent.  After the Risorgimento, the convent was closed, and the panels were moved, eventually to the Basilica Santa Croce. 

When the Arno overflowed its banks on November 4, 1966 (again, for the eighth time since 1333), the panels were submerged in the mixture of water, soil, refuse, oil from underground tanks, and sewage, for at least 12 hours, and the wooden boards on which the painting was done were soaked, and about 60% of the paint was gone, with chips floating on the water.  The technology to restore it was not achieved until recently, as told here in the New York Times, detailing 50 years of intensive research and painstaking labor.

The painting was restored to its place in the basilica just in time for the 50th anniversary of the flood on November 4.  To guard against future damage, it has been attached to a mechanism that raises it higher on the wall in case of another flood.